Brexit and the thorny question of Gibraltar: an agreement finally found

, by Louise Guillot, Translated by Maria Mantzakidi

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Brexit and the thorny question of Gibraltar: an agreement finally found
Theresa May, Prime Minister of United Kingdom at the European Council in Brussels on 18. - Copyright: European Union

On the occasion of the European Council of 17 to 19 October, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and her Spanish counterpart Pedro Sánchez, announced that an agreement settling the question of Gibraltar in the context of Brexit has been found. This protocol, which will be annexed to the United Kingdom’s final withdrawal agreement from the European Union (EU), has not been made public. However, Spanish officials argued that this agreement and so the Gibraltar question would no longer be a problem in pursuit of negotiations on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU. It seems that this protocol will raise the issue of the rights of British and Spanish citizens living on the rock, as well as the tax regime of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar: a contested territory for 300 years

1713, Treaty of Utrecht: the Kingdom of Spain yields to the British Empire un parcel of land of seven square kilometers at the tip of Spain. The British then obtain the sovereignty over Gibraltar and will never give it back to the Spanish people, despite numerous attempts by the latter. Gibraltar is a strategic location: located between the European continent and Africa, it is a gateway for the trade and migration movements, but it has also a particular importance for fishing. Indeed, today it allows British fishermen to have a privileged access to the waters of the Mediterranean which surround the famous rock. But “Spain will not recognise the British domination over the waters that surround the territory, or over the isthmus that connects Gibraltar to the Iberian Peninsula and on which there is [an] airport.”

In 1967, in a referendum, the inhabitants of Gibraltar chose to remain under the authority of the British Crown, and in 2002, they also massively rejected the possibility of a shared sovereignty with Spain.

What is the relationship between Gibraltar and Brexit?

Gibraltar is a British exclave at the end of Spain, so it is affected by the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU. In 2016, the citizens of Gibraltar obviously participated in the referendum on Brexit, and 96% voted to stay in the Union. Thousands of people cross every day the border in order to work on the rock. Different issues arise: that of the border between Spain and the United Kingdom, that of the circulation of people (British and Spanish) working on the spot, but also that of the movement of goods for example in the framework of the single market, since after Brexit a strict control at the border might be restored until an agreement is found on the future relationship between the Union and the Great Britain in matters of trade. [1]

For 300 years, Spain has contested this British possession and claims that Gibraltar is a Spanish colony. The vote on Brexit put in the spotlight the discussions around this thorny question. Brexit has been used by the Spanish government as a pretext in order to reopen this file. As a matter of fact, just after the vote during the referendum, Spain asked to regain sovereignty over the island, since it regards it as a colony. Nevertheless, with the progress of negotiations, the Spanish position has gradually smoothed and some remind that Madrid has not (yet?) achieved its goal of negotiating for example a shared management of the Gibraltar airport. The Spanish government claims today that the discussions will resume on this issue after the exit of the United Kingdom, and in particular with regard to the advantageous Gibraltar tax regime. It also indicates that it won’t put its veto on the final withdrawal agreement of the United Kingdom from the EU as the subject of Gibraltar is now included thanks to the conclusion of the protocol mentioned above.

Why so much secrecy around this protocol?

British and Spanish officials indicated that the Gibraltar protocol would not be made public until the publication of the final withdrawal agreement of the United Kingdom from the EU, because this protocol is an integral part of the agreement. But why so much mystery around this document?

Perhaps the officials do not want to draw the attention of public opinion, particularly Spanish, on this subject, even though we can legitimately think that the Spanish citizens working in Gibraltar have the right to know what their situation will be after Brexit. Perhaps the two governments do not want to interfere with the main negotiations, which are, let us recall, carried out by the European Union on behalf of the 27 Member States. As a result, there are normally no possible bilateral discussions for Theresa May with her European counterparts on Brexit issues. The interlocutor of the British is Michel Barnier, until March 29th 2019 at least. Or perhaps the secret around this protocol is well-kept in order not to fuel rumors about the issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which will also have to be the subject of an annexed protocol to the final withdrawal agreement.

Consequently, the recent settlement of the Gibraltar question forces us to wonder also about the Irish case, that on a larger scale, also raises many questions regarding the content of the border between the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland. Will there be a physical border and reinforced controls? And what repercussions will this have on the relationships between these two parts of the same island? A similar protocol about Northern Ireland is so expected, but no conclusive agreement on this topic has still been achieved in the negotiations.

It seems that Theresa May is facing an impossible trilemma to solve: “Brexit means Brexit“, so she promised an exit of the United Kingdom from the single market and from the customs union, no border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but also no different treatment of Northern Ireland in relation to the rest of the UK, especially with regard to the freedom of movement of goods and people. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking and there are only four months and a half left until the scheduled exit date. Tic, toc!


[1Translator’s note: This would be the case if there is no Brexit deal, or if a deal on Gibraltar does not prevent this prospect.

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